The Royal Navy cruisers HMS Suffolk and Norfolk had been shadowing the Bismarck (along with the Prince Eugen) since they had sighted her heading south through the Denmark Strait at 1922 on the 23rd. The two cruisers had been able to keep their distance and hide in the fog.
The relatively old battlecruiser HMS Hood and the very new battleship HMS Prince of Wales now intercepted the German ships as they emerged from the gap between Greenland and Iceland. The Battle of the Denmark Strait began with the first sighting at 0535, the Hood opened fire at 0553. It was all over in a matter of minutes.
The crew of HMS Hood that had celebrated the New Year together now faced mortal danger. A remarkable account of the action was written by Ted Briggs who had a grandstand view of the action, being posted on the Compass Platform of HMS Hood alongside Admiral Holland, the commander of the British force:
The menacing thunder of our guns snapped the tension. All my traces of anxiety and fright left me momentarily. I was riveted with fascination as I counted off the seconds for our shells to land – 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25…then tiny spouts of water, two extremely close to the pinpoints on the horizon. Suddenly a report from the spotting-top made Holland realize he had blundered. ‘We’re shooting at the wrong ship. The Bismarck’s on the right, not the left.’ Our shells had been falling near the Prinz Eugen, which many hours earlier had begun to lead the German raiding force when the Bismarck’s forward radar failed. Holland seemed hardly perturbed and in the same monotonous voice said: ‘Shift target to the right.’
Within the next two minutes the Hood’s foremost turrets managed to ram in six salvoes each at the Bismarck. I counted each time, expecting to see a hit registered. The first salvo pockmarked the sea around her, and the third appeared to spark off a dull glow. I thought we had got in the first blow, but I was wrong. Suddenly it intrigued me to see four star-like golden flashes, with red centres, spangle along the side of the Bismarck. But I had no time to admire them. Those first pretty pyrotechnics were four fifteen-inch shells coming our way, and deep, clammy, numbing fear returned. That express train, which I had last heard when the French fired on us at Oran, was increasing in crescendo. It passed overhead. Where it landed I was not sure.
My eyes were on the two ships rapidly becoming more visible on the starboard bow. They were still winking at us threateningly. But the next salvo was not just a threat. Not far from our starboard beam there were two, no three, no four high splashes of foam, tinted with an erupting dirty brown fringe. Then I was flung off my feet. My ears were ringing as if I had been in the striking-chamber of Big Ben. I picked myself up, thinking I had made a complete fool of myself, but everyone else on the compass platform was also scrambling to his feet. ‘Tiny’ Gregson walked almost sedately out to the starboard wing of the platform to find out what had happened. ‘We’ve been hit at the base of the mainmast, sir, and we’re on fire,’ he reported, almost as if we were on manoeuvres.
Then came a crazy cacophony of wild cries of ‘Fire’ through the voice-pipes and telephones. On the amidships boat deck a fierce blaze flared. This was punctuated by loud explosions. The torpedo officer reported by phone: ‘The four-inch ready-use ammunition is exploding.’ I could hear the UP rockets going up, just as they had roared off accidentally in Gibraltar a year earlier. Fear gripped my intestines again as agonized screams of the wounded and dying emitted from the voice-pipes. The screeching turned my blood almost to ice. Yet strangely I also began to feel anger at the enemy for the first time. ‘Who the hell do they think they are, hitting our super ship?’ I thought ridiculously.’
As the AA shells continued to rocket around, Captain Kerr ordered the four-inch gun crews to take shelter and the fire and damage control parties to keep away from the area until all the ready-use ammunition had been expended. But the bursting projectiles were making a charnel-house of positions above the upper deck. The screams of the maimed kept up a strident chorus through the voice-pipes and from the flag deck. I was certain I heard my’ oppo’ Ron Bell shouting for help. These agonizing moments did not appear to trouble Holland, Kerr or Gregson. Their binoculars were still focused on the enemy. I wondered how they could be so detached, with chaos and havoc around them. This, I supposed, was the calmness of command, and some of it transferred to me like a form of mental telepathy.
Only a couple of minutes later the Hood blew up in a spectacular explosion. Ted Briggs was one of only three survivors out of the entire crew of 1,418. His full account can be read at the HMS Hood Association, which has amassed an extraordinary collection of material relating to the Hood and the action in the Denmark Strait.
The German view of events was obtained when the Royal Navy subsequently interviewed the survivors of the Bismarck:
Kapitänleutnant Burkhardt von Müllenheim-Rechberg, 3rd Gunnery Officer in “Bismarck,” stated during interrogation, that no officer recognised “Hood” at first, and did not do so until “Hood” turned to port, disclosing the long, low sweep of her decks. They had not bargained with coming into contact with “Hood” and for a time they were extremely anxious about the outcome.
The Germans, however, fired with great accuracy, and “Norfolk,” who was in a position to witness the duel, states that the first salvo was 100 yards short, but that the second salvo straddled and hit. The third salvo again straddled and hit and a fire broke out in “Hood’s” port battery, which spread rapidly to the mainmast. At 0600, just after “Hood” and “Prince of Wales” had turned together to open “A” arcs, “Hood” was straddled again. There was a huge explosion between the after funnel and the mainmast and the ship sank in three or four minutes.
The Prince of Wales was also hit, a shell killing everyone on the bridge apart from the Captain and she soon broke off the action. But the Bismarck had not escaped unscathed.